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William Godwin (1756-1836): The Apostle of "Universal Benevolence."

The English Romantic Movement started just about when the 18th century ended. The movement with its "high thought and warm feelings," a reaction to the "vices and follies of the world," continued throughout the first quarter of the 19th century. During this period there came to the forefront certain literary and political agitators, who brought about, beginning with the great Reform Bill of 1832, the law reforms that were to take place as the balance of the 19th century unfolded in England. We may mark the year 1793 as the beginning point of the English Romantic Movement; it was the year that William Godwin brought out his work, Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Political Justice.

William Godwin, born on March 3rd, 1756, at Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, came from a line of dissenting ministers.1 He was the seventh of thirteen children in the family; they were brought up in the Calvinistic faith, an upbringing which undoubtedly had a significant impact on Godwin.2 At the age of seventeen, William was sent to a theological academy at Hoxton, near London. After his graduation, he was to take a position as a minister at Stowmarket in Sulfolk. Within the year he was to leave Sulfolk and give up the ministry permanently. Godwin then carried himself to London, there to earn a precarious living by his pen.

Godwin came of age during very exciting times. The year, 1776, marked a number of historical events. It was the year the Continental Congress carried a motion for the independence of the 13 states on the east coast of North America; it was the year that Adam Smith gave forth with his, The Wealth of Nations; Jeremy Bentham, Fragments on Government; and Thomas Paine, Common Sense. In 1789, at Paris, a political club met in the old convent of the Jacobins (order of monks) to maintain and propagate the principles of extreme democracy and absolute equality. The French Revolution ensued, and, as the bloody blade of the guillotine did its work, absolute monarchy and its attending aristocratic order collapsed. Out of the revolutionary turmoil there came to the world stage, Napoleon. Between the execution of Louis XVI in 1793 and the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, during this 22 year period: blood, death and misery flowed over France, and over onto the neighboring countries.

England, due to its "Wooden Walls" and its trappings of "democracy" (long since established by its bloodless revolution) was spared the effects of the revolutionary fervour that had spread out from France; but, not entirely. During the interval between the opening years of the American War and the beginning of the French Revolution there came into being in England the first great journals: The Morning Chronicle, The Morning Post, The Morning Herald, and The Times. With the appearance of these journals, "journalism took a new tone of responsibility and intelligence."3 Public opinion from these times onward was to be moulded by what was written in the public press. Thus, a new authority, public opinion, was trenching upon the old. It went hand and hand with the growth of literacy and the ease by which political writers could get their pamphlets abroad. Though the old political guard were slow to recognize it: public opinion, right or wrong, was what was to rule: the plutocratic could rule but only through the shaping of public opinion. As William Pitt observed, "Five hundred gentlemen, my Lords, are not ten millions; and if we must have a contention, let us take care to have the English nation on our side."4 In order to shape public opinion, it was thought, what must be done is to rein in the political writers of the time. In addition to such war measures as the suspension of Habeas Corpus, the government instituted an active programme to prosecute editors, nonconformists and radicals who were arguing for Parliamentary reform. In 1793, for example, at a "convention" at Edinburgh, a number of "Reform-martyrs" were arrested, convicted of treason and transported to Botany Bay. A year later, in 1794, there took place the "Trial of the Twelve Reformers" (among them: Thomas Holcroft, Horne Tooke, Thomas Hardy and John Thelwall). The charges were high treason, however, due mainly to the efforts of a talented barrister, the twelve were acquitted amid much excitement.

During these times, Godwin was busy with his pen. His first notable work was his Life of Chatham [Pitt], 1783. For some years thereafter, in addition to his journalistic writing, Godwin wrote novels, not now remembered.5 It was in 1793 that Godwin's Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Political Justice came off the presses: this is the work for which Godwin is remembered.6 It burst upon the scene as a major piece of sedition.7 It was an attack on aristocracy, property, religion, and even the sacrament of marriage. The world of London divided strongly on Godwin's work.

Godwin's reputation as a radical thinker and writer was to attract a number of people to his side, though there were others who shunned his acquaintance, and some were naturally, or became ultimately, his enemies. He frequently proved a difficult, even quarrelsome, friend. Henry Crabb Robinson, the diarist, at the first of their friendship, was to often seek out Godwin who kept "a bookseller's shop in his wife's name." Robinson felt however that Godwin's "acquaintance was of the least agreeable kind. He made me feel my inferiority unpleasantly, and also in another way disagreeably, by demands on my purse for small sums and trying to make use of me with others."8 Physically, Godwin was short and sturdy in build. His face had fine features, with, as Robert Southey was to observe, set with "large noble eyes and a nose -- oh, most abominable nose." In his sober dress, as Professor Brailsford was to write9 Godwin "suggested rather the dissenting preacher than the prophet of philosophic anarchism." He was, Brailsford continued, "not a ready debater or a fluent talker. His genius was not spontaneous or intuitive." William Hazlitt in his essay on the man made an analogy in comparing Godwin to "an eight-day clock that must be wound up long before it can strike. ... his powers of conversation are but limited. He has neither acuteness of remark nor a flow of language, both which might be expected from his writings ... He is ready only on reflection, dangerous only at the rebound. ... [however] he must make a career, before he flings himself armed upon the enemy, or he is sure to be unhorsed."

As for Godwin's philosophy: Godwin followed along in the footsteps of Rousseau in his nostalgia for the simple and the primitive.10 Godwin could foresee for mankind a perfect equality and happiness; he believed in the perfectibility of man; he believed that it would be impossible to be rationally persuaded and not act accordingly, and that therefore, man ultimately could live in harmony without law and institutions.11 "Since government even in its best state is an evil, the object to be principally aimed at is that we should have as little of it as the general peace of society will permit." Godwin foresaw a time when "there will be no war, no crimes, no administration of justice, as it is called, and no government. Besides this, there would be neither disease, anguish, melancholy nor resentment. Every man will seek with ineffable ardour the good of all."

Professor C. H. Herford:

"... Godwin saw in government, in law, even in property, and in marriage, only restraints upon liberty and obstacles to progress. Yet Godwin was not, strictly speaking, an anarchist. He transferred the seat of government from thrones and parliament to the reason in the breast of every man. On the power of reason, working freely, to convince all the armed unreason of the world and to subdue all its teeming passion, he rested his boundless confidence in the 'perfectibility' of man --."12
To Godwin, reason was the principal ground of action; it is "the guide, the stay, and anchor of our purest thoughts, and soul of all our moral being." While there can be no question as to the value of the human faculty of reason, to Godwin it was "the queen of the moral world, the soul of the universe, the lamp of human life, the pillar of society, the foundation of law, the beacon of nations, the golden chain let down from heaven ..." The proposition that we should all strive to act on the basis of reason, is one to which few of us would disagree; but a separate question is this: -- do persons act according to reason?13

The question of what drives a person to action, -- whatever the nature of that action -- is a question that goes back to classic times. Aristotle listed seven causes for human actions: chance, nature, compulsion, habit, reason, passion, desire. William Hazlitt, in his essay, "On Genius and Common Sense," expressed the view that man, in all his important activities, generally is not motivated by "hasty, dogmatical, self-satisfied reason," indeed, reason is worse than "idle fancy, or bigoted prejudice. ... In art, in taste, in life, in speech, you decide from feeling, and not from reason. ... Reason is the interpreter and critic of nature and genius, not their law-giver and judge. He must be a poor creature indeed whose practical convictions do not in almost all cases outrun his deliberate understanding, or does not feel and know much more than he can give reason for."

Two famous men of letters, one from France, the other from Scotland -- who had been dead for years before Godwin brought out his Political Justice in 1793 -- had already stated the philosophical view that it is passion that rules the hearts and actions of men. Voltaire: "Passions are the winds which fill the sails of the vessel; sometimes they sink it; but without them it would be impossible to make way." Hume: "Reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them."14

Godwin's opinions, as he set forth in Political Justice, were, for the time, 1793, extreme opinions. Hazlitt, in 1819, said that no "work in our time gave such a blow to the philosophical mind of the country." According to Hazlitt, Godwin "raised the standard of morality above the reach of humanity."15

"The author of the Political Justice took abstract reason for the rule of conduct and abstract good for its end. He places the human mind on an elevation, from which it commands a view of the whole line of moral consequences; and requires it to conform its acts to the larger and more enlightened conscience which it has thus acquired. He absolves man from the gross and narrow ties of sense, custom, authority, private and local attachment, in order that he may devote himself to the boundless pursuit of universal benevolence."
Hazlitt continues to comment on Godwin's vision: "gratitude, promises, friendship, family affection" must give way, and the citizen of the state must become a "hero of duty," an "unshrinking martyr and confessor of the public good." Among Godwin's golden rules there is no room, it would seem, for "friendship and private affection."

"In determining this point, we were not to be influenced by any extrinsic or collateral considerations, by our own predilections, or the expectations of others, by our obligations to them or any services they might be able to render us, by the climate they were born in, by the house they lived in, by rank, or religion, or party, or personal ties, but by the abstract merits, the pure and unbiased justice of the case.
The artificial helps and checks to moral conduct were set aside as spurious and unnecessary, and we came at once to the grand and simple question - 'In what manner we could best contribute to the greatest possible good?'" [Viz.,
And further, from Hazlitt:

"Mr. Godwin's theory, and that of more approved reasoners, differ only in this, that what are with them the exceptions, the extreme cases, he makes the every-day rule. No one denies that on great occasions, in moments of fearful excitement, or when a mighty object is at stake, the lesser and merely instrumental points of duty are to be sacrificed without remorse at the shrine of patriotism, of honour, and of conscience. ...
The fault, then, of Mr. Godwin's philosophy, in one word, was too much ambition ... He conceived too nobly of his fellows ... he raised the standard of morality above the reach of humanity ...
Mr. Godwin gives no quarter to the amiable weaknesses of our nature, nor does he stoop to avail himself of the supplementary aids of an imperfect virtue. Gratitude, promises, friendship, family affection give way ..."
And, further from another of Hazlitt's essays, "A New Theory Of Civil And Criminal Legislation":
"... he [Godwin] makes no distinction between political justice, which implies an appeal to force, and moral justice, which implies only an appeal to reason. It is surely a distinct question, what you can persuade people to do by argument and fair discussion, and what you may lawfully compel them to do, when reason and remonstrance fail. But in Mr. Godwin's system the 'omnipotence of reason' supersedes the use of law and government, merges the imperfection of the means in the grandeur of the end, and leaves but one class of ideas or motives, the highest and the least attainable possible. So promises and oaths are said to be of no more value than common breath; nor would they, if every word we uttered was infallible and oracular, as if delivered from a Tripod. But this is pragmatical, and putting an imaginary for a real state of things. Again, right and duties, according to Mr. Godwin, are reciprocal. I could not comprehend this without an arbitrary definition that took away the meaning. In my sense, a man might have a right, a discriminating power, to do something, which others could not deprive him of, without a manifest infraction of certain rules laid down for the peace and order of society, but which it might be his duty to waive upon good reasons shown; rights are seconded by force, duties are things of choice."
And now, in coming to an end, I make reference to Godwin's family. The fact of the matter is that Godwin might be better remembered for the connections the various members of his family had to the literary figures of the time then ever he will be for his work, Political Justice.17 In 1796, Godwin was to meet Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97). (Mary Wollstonecraft, in 1792, wrote "the first great feminist manifesto," Vindication of the Rights of Women.) Finding that they had conceived a child together, Godwin, though no believer in the institution of marriage, took a practical route and wed Wollstonecraft during March 1797. On August 30th, 1797, Mary was born; and, within two weeks of that, presumably of complications due to childbirth, Mary Wollstonecraft was dead.18 Godwin was left with two small children on his hands, the infant Mary and Fanny Imlay (a child which Mary Wollstonecraft had by Gilbert Imlay). In 1801, Godwin married a second time. His second wife was Mary Jane Clairmont who came to the marriage with two children, Charles and Jane. Godwin and Clairmont were to have a child together, William, born in 1803. Godwin, it seems, ill-treated his children: "The worst feature of his character was his implacability towards his children, whom he hated, alleging that they were not his own."19 In 1814, the 17 year old Mary Wollstonecraft-Godwin accompanied the 26 year old Shelley to France; her half-sister, Jane Clairmont went along so to form a threesome.20 In 1816, Jane, then in Italy, formed an unhappy attachment with Lord Byron. Fanny killed herself in Wales, in 1816. Charles Clairmont at one point struck out for Vienna "where he became a successful teacher of languages."21 Godwin's son, William, who himself turned to novel writing, died in 1832.


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1 It is important to understand that a tradition of religious dissent usually also meant a tradition of political dissent.

2 The doctrines of theological Calvinism are contained in the so-called "five points," viz., (1) Particular election. (2) Particular redemption. (3) Moral inability in a fallen state. (4) Irresistible grace. (5) Final perseverance.

3 Green, History of the English People, vol. X, p. 77.

4 Quoted by Von Ruville in his biography on Pitt (London: Heinemann, 1907), vol. 3, p. 258.

5 Godwin wrote fiction so to make a living. In addition to three earlier novels, his principal novels were: Caleb Williams, 1794; St. Leon, 1799; Fleetwood, 1805; Mandeville, 1817; Cloudesley, 1830; and Deloraine, 1833. Caleb Williams, a social commentary on the relative positions of the privileged and lower classes, was the only novel that attracted any lasting readership.

6 Its full title, as was given by Godwin, was: An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness in February 1793.

7 During these years, because of its life and death struggle with Napoleon, England had placed ideas of liberty very low down on the scale of things. As we have seen, in 1793, the very year that Political Justice made its appearance, the "Reform-martyrs" were transported to Botany Bay. Therefore, it is surprising that Godwin did not run afoul the authorities. The book was dressed as a learned treatise and was to be sold for a price much out of the reach of many, unlike the penny pamphlets of the day. The story is that when the book was brought to the attention of Pitt, the prime minister, who might easily have set the wheels in motion for a charge of sedition to be laid, dismissed the suggestion, saying, "a three guinea book could never do much harm among those who had not three shillings to spare." [As quoted by Brailsford in his work, Shelley, Godwin, and Their Circle, 1913 (New York: Holt, nd) at pp. 91-2.]

8 Diary, Reminiscences and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson, Selected & edited by Thomas Sadler; (Boston: Fields, Osgood, & Co., 1869), vol. I, p.14. For Godwin, an opportune moment came about directly anyone come into his presence; he would put the touch on all and sundry. As Edith Morley was to observe, "possibly Godwin was merely practising the creed he had always preached about the common ownership of property." It was just this habit which led Robertson, as much as he appreciated Godwin's writings, to bring the friendship to an end. But for Robertson, there was more: "Among the worst features of Godwin's mind was his utter insensibility to kindness. He considered all acts of beneficence as a debt to his intellect." (As quoted by Morley, The Life and Times of Henry Crabb Robinson (London: Dent, 1935) at p. 70.)

9 Op. cit., p. 152.

10 "Mr. Godwin was a disciple of Rousseau, and had drawn up a plan of village perfection, in which 'every rood was to maintain' its main, and in which mankind were to be happy and at ease, without the annoying restraints of property and marriage." [Bagehot, Economic Studies (1867) (London: Longmans, Green, 2nd ed., 1888) at pp. 135-6.]

11 Godwin, like many after him, did not understand the true nature of man. There would, of course, Godwin figured, be laws, at least at the beginning. (He defined laws as reason without passion.) These theories were further developed and extended later by Karl Marx.

12 The Age of Wordsworth (London: Bell, 1916) at pp. 7-8. Herford was Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Manchester.

13 Godwin was to think so: "Show me in the clearest and most unambiguous manner that a certain mode of proceeding is most reasonable in itself, or most conducive to my interest, and I shall infallibly pursue that mode, so long as the views you suggested to me continue present to my mind." In a society of people like Godwin, people who can communicate clearly and in a most unambiguous manner the truth of matters to people who have an equally clear and unambiguous understanding of the governing principles, why, -- then, no doubt, reason would prevail; But, Alas! No such group of Godwins exist and if it did it would be a very small and exclusive group, indeed. People in general -- and there can be no doubt about it, are moved by passion, not by reason.

14 David Hume was at the head of a philosophical school known as skepticism, one that holds that ultimately the problems in this world are insoluble by reason. The explanation for this is that knowledge is limited; it is limited because the mind is limited, or that the accessibility of knowledge is limited.

15 The quotes are taken from Hazlitt's Essay on Godwin as found in The Spirit of the Age. It is plain, however, that Hazlitt did not think Godwin any great genius. It is interesting to read the comparison which Hazlitt made between Godwin and Coleridge in Hazlitt's companion essay on Coleridge. Godwin, according to Hazlitt had "less natural capacity and ... by concentrating his mind on some given object, and doing what he had to do with all his might, has accomplished much ... Mr. Coleridge, by dissipating his, and dallying with every subject by turns, has done little or nothing to justify to the world or to posterity the high opinion" it has of him. "Mr. Godwin's faculties have kept at home, and plied their task in the workshop of the brain, diligently and effectually: Mr. Coleridge's have gossiped away their time, and gadded about from house to house, as if life's business were to melt the hours in listless talk. Mr. Godwin is intent on a subject, only as it concerns himself and his reputation; he works it out as a matter of duty, and discards from his mind whatever does not forward his main object as impertinent and vain."

16 A development of utilitarianism is more then I am able to do at this place; I simply direct the reader to my work on Bentham. However, this comparison might be made: Jeremy Bentham to William Godwin: they resembled one another in their "blind contempt for the past." While each preached the need for nonviolent revolution, each had a different following. Bentham's revolution was to be effected by legislation, Godwin's by argument.

17 Godwin was to bring out two further editions of his work, the one of 1796 and the other of 1799. Much of the book in its second edition "was recast and many of the chapters entirely rewritten." [Brailsford, Shelley, Godwin, and Their Circle, 1913 (New York: Holt, nd) at p. 92.] Brailsford was of the view that Condorcet was to influence Godwin in the writing of the second edition. The 1799 edition was "toned down still further by a growing caution." There were no further editions; and, indeed, interest in Political Justice was, like all notions of liberty and justice at such times, dampened by an ongoing war. With the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, 1815 and on, it was Bentham's work with its emphasis on legislative action that the political planners picked up, not Godwin's.

18 I note that a year after Mary Wollstonecraft's death (1797) that Godwin wrote Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Women.

19 Henry Crabb Robinson Diary, op. cit., vol. I, p.14.

20 Mary Shelly was to display her own literary talents, when, in 1818, she wrote Frankenstein. As for Shelly: he read Godwin's work and soon thereafter, in 1812, the young poet arrived on Godwin's doorstep confessing his absolute allegiance to Godwin and his work (and, as it turn out, to his daughter, too.) In Shelley's preface to "Revolt of Islam" one will find some of his political views; it is an "excellent exposition of Godwin's ideas."

21 See Cameron's Romantic Rebels: Essays on Shelley and his Circle (Harvard University Press, 1973) at p. 27.


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Peter Landry